Malcolm Barker: An enjoyable climb to new heights of enlightenment

Bales of straw lie in a field below the impressive view of Roseberry Topping near Great Ayton.  Picture: Ian Day

Bales of straw lie in a field below the impressive view of Roseberry Topping near Great Ayton. Picture: Ian Day

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STANDING like a sentinel at the northern end of the Cleveland Hills, Roseberry Topping has been voted Yorkshire’s favourite peak in a survey of hillwalkers. This comes soon after it was named by Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, as offering one of England’s top100 views.

If this sudden fame goes to the Topping’s head it will not have far to travel.

Its sandstone cap reaches a mere 1,049ft above sea level, and although by one reckoning this makes it a mountain, most North Riding folk are content to call it a hill.

Its elevation in the Trail magazine poll is not exactly a resounding success, for its popularity nationwide ranked only 16th.

However, other Yorkshire candidates fared much less well. Ingleborough (2,376ft) came 22nd, Penyghent (2,231ft) 69th, and the highest of the triumvirate famous as the Three Peaks, Whernside (2,416ft), came nowhere.

This seems extraordinary, bizarre even, and casts doubts on the athleticism and stamina of the hillclimbers who responded to Trail’s question. Presumably, rather then braving the Three Peaks, they prefer walking the paved paths along the 700ft ascent from Newton-under-Roseberry to the Topping’s modest summit.

Many accept the Peaks challenge. The great Alfred Wainwright said of Ingleborough that it was probably the most ascended English mountain outside the Lake District. The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority reckons 120,000 people scale Ingleborough every year, with Penyghent attracting 80,000 and Whernside 50,000.

Often hardy souls tackle them all on the same day. A great assembly will flock to the mountains on July 19 this year when the British Heart Foundation is staging its Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, with participants attempting to complete a circuit of all three summits in 12 hours, covering 24 miles and climbing 3,000ft in the process. .

More understandable is the complete omission from the Trail list of Mickle Fell, Yorkshire’s highest mountain at 2,591ft. It is remote, occupying a great and soggy wilderness from which debouch the headwaters of the Tees, a river which forms the border between the North Riding of Yorkshire and County Durham.

The local government reorganisation of 1974 produced a further distinction for Mickle Fell, for it is now the highest summit twice over. This resulted from the Heath/Walker reforms which switched much of Upper Teesdale from Yorkshire into Durham, thus placing the mountain further above sea level than anywhere else in the traditional county of Yorkshire or the ceremonial county of Durham.

The Fell is also difficult to access, like its neighbour, dubbed Little Fell even though at 2,445ft it is taller than any of the Three Peaks. The pair occupy the Warcup military training area, largely a trackless waste where such pathways that do exist are kept clear of visitors for many days each year because access is severely restricted. Often the only sound apart from the soughing of the wind is the percussion of distant gunfire.

This has caused ramblers and right-to-roam agitators to call them “Forbidden Mountains”, a term which may be striking but is hardly accurate, for the Ministry of Defence provides controlled access to both Mickle and Little Fells on a regular basis.

There is nothing spectacular about them. Their heads merely emerge from surrounding uplands, humps among a lot of other humps, but slightly higher. It is a surprise to be assured that, given decent weather, a glimpse may be caught of the North Sea and Morecambe Bay from the cairn on Mickle Fell.

As mountains go, Roseberry Topping may lack stature but it is certainly much more eye-catching, rising as it does from low-lying country to a withered peak which brings to mind the Matterhorn. It even has a visual advantage over the Three Peaks. Ingleborough got into Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby’s The Wonders of Yorkshire (Dent, 1959) but it is rather lumpen in shape with a large flat top. Penyghent has been likened to a lion and Whernside to the curved back of an elephant: big beasts maybe, but, lacking peaks, they do not conform to most folks’ idea of a mountain.

The success of the Topping in the hillwalkers’ vote pleased me, because it was there that I got my first taste of mountaineering. We travelled to it by charabanc on the first post-war young folks’ outing from our church, St Ninian’s in Baxtergate, Whitby. 
We were led by our priest-in-charge, the Rev TR Gibbs, who knew the Teesside area well, for he had once served in a parish in Middlesbrough. We were told we were going to a mountain, and were pleased to find we could scamper up and down quite easily.

There were well-trodden paths deeply incised into its flanks, and Tommy Gibbs told us that various holes and hollows were legacies of mining for ironstone and jet during Victorian times.

The crest offered astonishing views, but I do not recall savouring them on that first ascent. We were anxious to descend 700ft or so to level ground, where a faith picnic had been laid on by the mothers of the congregation, with piles of egg-and-cress sandwiches, lemon buns and Yorkshire curd cheesecakes.

Tommy told us the Topping owed its prefix to an Old Norse term, Othenesberg, meaning hill of Odin, a Scandinavian god. This title, he thought, must have been bestowed 
by the men in long boats who raided the Saxon shore, but it was a place 
of importance long before they arrived.

A workman’s removal of some stones in 1826 revealed a Bronze Age hoard, which included axes, moulds, and other artefacts. There was also what seemed to be a breastplate decorated with the moon and stars, but this disintegrated soon after being brought to light.

Duly impressed, we explored various cavities, a neglected building supposed to be a shooting lodge, and a well, thinking the Topping a strange place and very likely haunted.

One lesson was learned on that trip. There were girls in the party, and up to then we had regarded them as strange and wilful beings, best avoided. To our surprise, we found we quite liked them, and reckoned they might make allies, even friends. Thus Roseberry Topping provided us with new heights of enlightenment.

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